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What is Citizen Engagement?

The World Bank defines citizen engagement as “the activities of private citizens that seek to influence public decision-making processes that affect their lives and their communities.” Citizen engagement is an essential part of open and inclusive governance, which is then determined by the processes and the outcomes of the engagement. The former refers to the extent of interaction between the duty-bearers (e.g. service providers) and the citizens, and the level of involvement of the citizens, while the latter refers to the degree that the duty-bearer is motivated or compelled to address the feedback resulting from the process.

           Citizen engagement is defined as the two-way interaction between citizens and governments or any type of organization that gives citizens a stake in decision-making with the objective of improving the intermediate and final development outcomes of the intervention. The spectrum of citizen engagement includes consultation; collaboration and participation; and empowerment.

In the last 20 years, citizen participation has grown in popularity as an alternative to the failures of political policies aimed at improving governance. Citizens’ participation in development policies has been sponsored in many ways by development agencies, international civil society, local non-governmental organizations, and governments themselves.

The reason why the word citizen is used is not to limit the scope of this concept to those who have citizenship of a particular country, but rather because of two main reasons. The first is the difficulty to find another word to replace it. We cannot use concepts like “user” or “customer” in the context of citizen engagement because the final beneficiaries (and even that word is not accurate) are not simple entities that are acted upon but rather active participants in the processes and activities that are proposed by the NGO. So, the concept of citizen is very different and broader than the simple status of citizenship to a particular country. The second reason that the word is used is that the beginnings of citizen engagement started out in the politico-political area which includes things like voting and campaigning for candidates. This field of action is of course closely tied to citizenship in its traditional definition.

As for the word “engagement” it refers to the different activities and actions that the “citizen” engages in through the prompting of the relevant body. These activities can be very different in nature and character. “Some are individual (e.g. making a donation), some are collective (e.g. taking part in a demonstration); some involve a long term or formal commitment (such as being a school governor) while others might only be done once or twice, or on an informal basis (such as signing a petition or some forms of volunteering)”.


Potential for big changes through youth:

Getting the youth engaged is critical for a variety of reasons. Young people, though they do not all share the same profiles, have the potential for significant impact, and their participation carries benefits. They have unique perspectives on local issues, they often bring new ideas to the table, and they can be an inexhaustible source of energy and passion for social change. Additionally, they have the time (as they are students or have flexible jobs) to participate in activities around various issues. Furthermore, they have the power of sheer numbers as they are the biggest age brackets in Tunisia. Their power was more than evident during the 2011 revolution in Tunisia.

Social innovation:

Social innovations can be defined as new solutions (including policies or tools) that fulfill an existing need more effectively than existing solutions. These solutions lead to improved conditions of people, communities, and governments, e.g. green energy, social economy, anti-corruption solutions, etc. There is proven to be a link between citizen engagement and social innovation, as the former allows for a pooling of resources, knowledge, and assets that facilitates the problem-solving process and personalizes it to the needs of the participants in citizen engagement.

Social Capital

It is widely argued in the literature that public participation can build social capital. This is because the activities relevant to citizen engagement necessarily require that a group of people interact together on a specific topic (anti-corruption in the case of I WATCH Organization). This allows for the creation of new and strengthening of old bonds between these people. It also implies the development of a certain level of trust towards the organization and towards each other in order to be able to successfully collaborate on projects, goals, and activities. One of the first academics that theorized on the issue of social capital is the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that “social capital is the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”. The same concept is treated somewhat differently by sociologist Robert Putnam, who defined it as “features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives… Social capital, in short, refers to social connections and the attendant norms and trust.” This social capital is the element that links individuals to communities and provides net benefits to both. In fact, “social capital is widely seen as a major determinant of health and wellbeing.”

For Equity

There are troubling opportunity gaps and inequities—by race, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and many other factors—that prevent individuals and communities from thriving. One source of this inequality is underrepresentation in civic and political life as a result of marginalization or oppression, particularly among non-white, immigrant, and/or low-income communities and individuals. Too often their voices go unheard, their problems go unaddressed, and a vicious circle of disengagement and neglect perpetuates injustice. These already intractable gaps can become more entrenched with time; thus, focusing on youth citizen engagement is a critical task in the work to promote a more just and equitable society.

Promotes anti-corruption

People participate in good governance and anti-corruption campaigns in a variety of ways. Members of a government, a flexible network of like-minded people, or, more generally, a civil society organization may both engage in good governance initiatives. These participants may also engage in various events, such as being involved in institutionalized participatory procedures, conducting social audits, and working to raise a concern about a particular problem, such as anti-corruption. Different reasons can justify how this diverse set of practices leads to improved governance and reduced corruption.

One argument for citizen participation in fostering good governance, especially in anti-corruption initiatives, is that corruption is a collective action issue that requires a high level of social confidence to address. Greater accountability as an enabler, as well as more democratized and participatory governance structures, will boost social confidence by bringing more voices and interests further into the governing process and limiting space for elected authorities to misuse their influence. Another argument is that shortcomings in governance, such as inadequate service quality, are caused by a lack of transparency. If the issue is in the lack of transparency in the governmental sector and relevant agencies, citizen engagement will demand accountability from the government directly. Gaventa and McGee best describe this idea in this quote: “through greater accountability, the leaky pipes of corruption and inefficiency will be repaired”. When combined with the right to implement certain kinds of reforms or discipline government agents, social responsibility and citizen oversight of government activities can be extremely successful. Voting allows citizens to expect transparency from public officials. Elections, however, do not extend to certain members of the general public sector, including non-elected public authorities, as a means of achieving transparency.


As a result, accountability processes such as a legislative review committee investigation, an independent disciplinary punishment or a criminal sanction should be used to trigger lateral accountability acts. These can be applied to both elected and non-elected members. This rationale gives rise to the concept of collective responsibility. Social accountability is best described as non-electoral, but vertical systems of influence that rely on the activities of a diverse range of citizens’ organizations and campaigns, as well as the media, actions that seek to expose government corruption, bring new problems to the public agenda, or activate the activity of horizontal agencies.

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